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December 1, 2006

Sooners renew rivalry with Huskers for title

"I actually think the weather will favor OU because their offense is a heavy ground game. Add to that they have a better defense and we can't afford to get into a ground battle with OU ... I just hope it's not windy so we can still toss the pigskin around."
-- C of Red on the Red Sea Scrolls message board on HuskersIllustrated.com.

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Considering Texas needed just one win in its last two games to clinch the Big 12 South Division, it might seem surprising that Oklahoma and Nebraska are playing for the conference championship.

However, the bigger surprise might be that it has taken 11 years for the Sooners and Cornhuskers – who once dominated the old Big 8 – to play for the Big 12 crown.

Oklahoma or Nebraska represented the Big 8 in the Orange Bowl in 17 of the 19 years before the Big 12 was formed in 1996. From 1962 to 1995 the Sooners and/or Cornhuskers won or shared the conference championship every season but two.

When they vie for the 11th Big 12 championship on Saturday night at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, the significance of the meeting won't be reserved for old-timers.

"We've definitely watched films of the old rivalries," Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson said. "When you get here coach (Bob) Stoops does a great job at showing the traditions with all of the teams. Nebraska is definitely one of those teams.

"(The rivalry) kind of maybe died a little bit lately because we don't play them every year, but if you look back on the Big 8 it was pretty much Nebraska and Oklahoma every year. We're definitely real aware of the tradition between the two schools and hopefully we can keep it going."

That they're going to play on Saturday is like a long shot that paid off big. Texas (9-3, 6-2) beat both Oklahoma and Nebraska, but consecutive losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M prevented the Longhorns from defending their conference championship.

Stoops said that he remained optimistic of reaching the championship game even before Texas' late-season nose dive.

"We've been playing in a good way," he said. "You've seen some of (Texas') early games were pretty close. Nebraska played the heck out of them. You always feel that the door is open, you don't ever shut it. We always felt there was a chance, and fortunately it worked out for us."

Nebraska surely would've relished the opportunity to avenge a 22-20 loss to Texas, but the Cornhuskers insist they didn't care which team would be their opponent.

"Either one would have been a tough game," Nebraska linebacker Corey McKeon said. "Oklahoma is hot right now. It's hard to look at them and say that you want to play them as good as they've been playing."

Oklahoma is riding a seven-game winning streak. Its running game, primarily behind tailback Allen Patrick, has produced more than 200 yards in four of its last five games. The Sooners defense has allowed an average of 11 points per game during the win streak.

The Cornhuskers are on a three-game winning streak in which they've scored no fewer than 28 points. Senior quarterback Zac Taylor - who is originally from Norman, Okla., but was not recruited by the Sooners - has thrown two touchdown passes in his last five games. The Huskers rank 18th nationally in rushing with an average of 183.3 yards per game. Four running backs have rushed for more than 300 yards and junior Maurice Purify, who is averaging 19.5 yards per catch on 30 receptions and has seven touchdowns, is emerging as one of Nebraska's best receivers ever.

Also, the Cornhuskers have scored touchdowns on 38 of 46 trips inside the red zone.

But none of that was accomplished against Oklahoma, which allows only 273 yards per game to lead the Big 12 in total defense. The Sooners have notched 14 interceptions this season.

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"Their corners have come on this year and they are playing well, so you can't make mistakes against them," Taylor said of the OU defense. "They'll make you pay. You just have to play smart and take what they give you. They don't run anything real complicated, but they are very good at what they do so you just have to adjust and be smart."

Taylor might be more concerned about the OU pass rush than its secondary. Last season he was sacked nine times in a 31-24 Sooners victory in Lincoln.

"We are a completely different team than we were last year and so are they," Taylor said. "It was a rough game. It was a close game. I think both teams are completely different with completely different styles now. It will be a different game."

But it will also be the same as it used to be - a championship is at stake.

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 19 Nebraska
Nebraska run offense vs. Oklahoma run defense: Almost overlooked in Nebraska's West Coast offense is the fact the Cornhuskers run effectively. They don't run like they did in the old days, but they have improved tremendously from last season. That improvement is one of the main reasons the Cornhuskers are in the championship game. Brandon Jackson emerged as the most productive back with 881 yards rushing, but Marlon Lucky, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson have all rushed for more than 300 yards. All average 4.6 yards per carry or better. The Huskers have rushed for at least 183 yards in three of their last four games. Oklahoma's defense got off to a slow start, but has finished strong. Defensive tackle Steven Coleman has emerged as a run stuffer. He has enhanced the play of linebackers Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer, who have played very well in the second half of the season. The Sooners allowed an average of just 99 rushing yards per game, but that number shrunk to 76 yards in the last six games.
Edge: Oklahoma.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense: Zac Taylor, arguably the Big 12's best quarterback, has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,789 yards with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has thrown two touchdown passes in each of the last five games. Junior Maurice Purify is a big-time receiver who has averaged 19.5 yards per catch and has seven touchdowns, but needs to have more passes thrown his way. Terrence Nunn, Nate Swift and tight end Matt Herian are productive, too. The Huskers are protecting Taylor better than they did last season, but he's still sacked too frequently. The Huskers allowed 25 sacks this season. Oklahoma's pass rush isn't overpowering with only 20 sacks, but that's at least partially traced to facing several mobile quarterbacks. The Sooners have allowed just four touchdown passes and grabbed nine interceptions in their seven-game winning streak. However, good passing teams – Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State –threw for 243 yards or more against them.
Edge: Nebraska.
Oklahoma run offense vs. Nebraska run defense: The Oklahoma offensive line, which was a question mark when the season started, has obviously proved itself. OU's running game has been productive even without Adrian Peterson, who broke his collarbone in the sixth game of the year. Allen Patrick, Peterson's backup, has rushed for at least 110 yards in the four games he has started. Freshman Chris Brown had 84 yards and 169 yards in the other two. The Sooners have averaged more rushing yardage in the six games since losing Peterson than the six games with him. The Nebraska defensive line is excellent, but the Cornhuskers tend to give him up big plays - especially to mobile quarterbacks. OU's Paul Thompson definitely fits that description.
Edge: Oklahoma.
Oklahoma pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: Thompson has had a solid season with 2,169 yards passing for 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Malcolm Kelly has developed into one of the Big 12's premier receivers with 52 catches for 851 yards and eight touchdowns. Juaquin Iglesias is an effective second option, and Joe Jon Finley is a sure-handed tight end with three touchdown grabs. The Sooners have allowed just 14 sacks all season. Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker has six of the 26 sacks the Cornhuskers have accumulated by primarily rushing the front four. The Huskers need to get pressure because they've had issues in the secondary with inconsistent play at safety. Opponents also try to get physical mismatches on 5-foot-9, 165-pound cornerback Cortney Grixby. Nebraska ranks 84th nationally in pass defense.
Edge: Oklahoma.
Nebraska kicking game vs. Oklahoma kicking game: The Sooners and Huskers have been good - sometimes spectacular - on returns, and both are solid on coverage. The big difference is in place-kickers. Oklahoma's Garrett Hartley has converted 17 of 18 field-goal attempts, including 4-for-5 between 40 and 49 yards. Nebraska's Jordan Congdon has attempted just seven field goals and has made five.
Edge: Oklahoma.
Nebraska coaches vs. Oklahoma coaches: Bill Callahan has done a remarkable job overhauling Nebraska from a losing team to a championship contender in just three years. Of course, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops won a national championship in his second year. This year might be Stoops' best coaching effort, having lost his starting quarterback in August and his starting tailback in mid-October. Yet, the Sooners (10-2) are just one botched replay review in Oregon away from being in the national championship discussion.
Edge: Oklahoma.
X-Factor: Weather could be a factor with temperatures expected to dip into the low 20s. The only poor-weather game Oklahoma played in was a 24-3 victory over Colorado. In that game Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson passed for just 105 yards. Nebraska played in snow against Texas and lost 22-20.
Nebraska will win if: The Huskers must stop – or at least slow – Oklahoma's running game. That will likely require sure tackling in the secondary, which has literally been hit-and-miss this season. On the other side, Nebraska needs to establish the ability to run effectively to set up play-action passes and keep the OU pass rush off Taylor.
Oklahoma will win if: The Sooners can pressure Taylor, who isn't a threat to run. They can limit his effectiveness by collapsing the pocket. OU has also run very well during its seven-game winning streak and needs to continue that trend.
Notes: Nebraska doesn't settle for field goals often. The Cornhuskers have scored 38 touchdowns on 46 possessions in the red zone. … Oklahoma is 5-1 and Nebraska is 4-2 against common opponents. Both lost to Texas, while Nebraska fell to Oklahoma State. OU defeated Oklahoma State 27-21 last week. OU is playing in its fourth Big 12 title game, all since 2000. Nebraska is making its first appearance in the championship game since 1999. … The game marks the 24th time Nebraska and Oklahoma play with both teams ranked.
Buchanan's pick: Oklahoma 21, Nebraska 14
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Oklahoma 24, Nebraska 17
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Nebraska 24, Oklahoma 21
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Oklahoma 28, Nebraska 27
Make your picks on Rivals.com Pick 'Em.

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